Let’s face it. The only relationship Mumbai has with cinema is Bollywood. The city’s exposure to regional and international cinema is restricted to film clubs, academic courses and more recently, expensive DVD libraries. The only way I could watch Micheal Haneke’s The White Ribbon that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2009 was by downloading it from the internet. This week, though, I can see it on screen, as part of the MAMI film festival. The Mumbai Academy of Moving Images, an independent body of stalwarts connected to the film industry, has been organising an international film festival since 1997, and for long, it has been the city’s biggest resource for regional and international fare.
The Aircel campaign to save the tiger has been so successful that 1,411—the tiny print at the bottom of the ad says it’s a government approximation—has become the most quoted doom statistic of recent times. (We now know that glaciers will NOT melt in 35 years.) But after going on a safari to Ranthambhore national park, I think the more we’re told about the decreasing tiger population, the more we’re instigated to harass the animal.
Ranthambhore has within 300 sq. km. more than 35 different kinds of birds and over 17 different species of animals, but it’s unlikely that anyone will point any of that out to you because the park is a vortex of tiger frenzy. Officially, Ranthambhore has 40-odd tigers, but guides say they haven't seen more than 15.
All safaris are preceded by one prayer: god, show me a tiger. Our guide told me that I should cross my fingers, every hotel guest asked every other hotel guest if they’d seen one, some even went for a safari twice a day three days in a row to see the animal over and over again. Between 6.30 am and 6 pm there is no restriction in the number of vehicles or people who troop in and out of Ranthambhore, either for safaris, visit the fort, or its religious sites. If you're persuasive enough security guards will even open the gates after 6 pm.
I set out with nine other guests from our hotel in a Maruti camper at 6.30 am on Sunday. (Mornings are considered best because that’s when tigers come out to drink.) Ranthambhore is divided into various sections, and according to our guide, section 3—not distinguishable to visitors in any particular way—was the most promising. Apparently several other people had the same idea because ours was one of a party of 10 campers, with at least 40 people on board, chasing sighting rumours. Officials insist that vehicles stay on a restricted path, but one policeman-driven jeep broke the line and drove into the forest for better views.
Our guide told us we should hope to see T-17, well known as the friendliest tiger in Ranthambhore. She is three years old, pregnant with her first litter and, by all accounts, completely anesthetised to human presence. It took under half an hour to confirm most of those facts. T-17 came out of a tiny patch of trees above a mound, clearly headed for a lake downhill. Between her and her objective, stood us the camper-laden paparazzi. She stopped for a few seconds, considered the people and vehicles in front of her then, seemingly resigned to the facts of life, she rambled downward, crossed between two vehicles, and went into a thick brush of tiger grass.
The whole sighting took less than five minutes. We then spent about an hour guarding the grass, waiting for T-17 to jump out at some deer near the water. She never did, of course. I was secretly thankful because despite the exhilaration of seeing her up close, it was difficult to ignore the feeling that we were intruding into a space that was not meant for us. A safari is a wonderful experience if you can see animals in their natural habitat, behaving routinely. There’s nothing natural about a wild tiger unfazed by the presence of 40-50 people in between her and her breakfast. Our guide told us that T-17 had grown up with this kind of attention. Since forest officials do not control the number of vehicles allowed entry into the park at any one time, animals living in unrestricted portions of Ranthambhore are inevitably inundated with flashlights and noises.
People who’ve been on African safaris describe entirely different procedures, which required them to remain silent in the presence of animals, without cellphones, even wear camouflage-coloured clothes. And parks disallow more than one vehicle near an animal sighting.
The best safari anecdote I heard in Ranthambhore sort of turned the idea on its head. In 2009, the lakes in the park were so dry after a bad monsoon that a five-star near one of Ranthambhore’s boundary walls got a group of unlikely guests one winter night: a tigress and three cubs. A guard discovered the family lapping water at the hotel’s step-well. They were apparently so comfortable there they came and went for three days, drinking from the pool, sometimes sleeping within the property’s extensive wild tree cover. I can’t help but call that a people safari.
Mumbai’s a terrible shopping destination. Delhi, you win, hands down. In between Fashion Street and Gucci, we run into a wall. Mango’s euro trash, Ensemble’s for aunties, and Bombay Electric’s price tags are a rip-off. Little wonder that most Bombay residents either look like extras in an eighties soap opera—blonde hair, diamonds, Franck Muller, bling, bling bling—or as though you caught them on their way to a Goan shack—flip-flops, leggings, tee-shirts. Occassionally, and it’s extremely rare, you scratch the surface of the city’s shopping map hard enough and find a treat.
Denim Story (DS) is such a hidden treasure. Located in the garage of an old art deco building on Marina Drive, DS is not so much a store as an office. It is, in fact, the office of a company that distributes jeans in India. If ever you crossed paths with J-Brand, Citizens for Humanity, 7 For All Mankind, Rock & Republic, True Religion, or DVB, fell in love, and wondered when you’d meet them again, DS is for you. (One recommendation: J-Brand. J-Brand jeans have more lycra, and so they fit the contours of our pear-shaped bodies better than others.)
DS began as a distributor to boutiques in the city, and then decided to go it alone. They don’t have a retail outlet yet, so right now you simply walk into a congested office space with racks of jeans across the wall, plus a tiny dressing room at the back. But DS has every conceivable size, every conceivable cut of some of the best jeans brands in the world. (Horror of horrors, they even have the latest fashion debacle: jeggings.) And if there’s a particular style or size that you want and they don’t have, then the folks at DS will order it in for you.
The prices are steep, but if you’re in that half of the population that believes a pair of jeans is not worth more than Rs 1,000, then just forget you read this post. DS prices are comparable to New York or London tag rates. But their sales offer 50 per cent price cuts.
I’m not kidding. If you’d watched Bumbling Idiot Bhagat on Monday in a chat with Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif (of the brilliant book A Case of Exploding Mangoes), you’d have reached the conclusion that folks like Bhagat could only make the Indo-Pak situation worse, not better. The two were in a literary session sponsored by Times of India as part of Aman Ki Asha, a campaign to improve people-to-people relations between Indians and Pakistanis. In other words, another marketing blitzkrieg.
Back to Bhagat. What you expect from going to an evening with two authors of this sort is that, hopefully, they’d be able to point out the ridiculous in the Indo-Pak situation. Bring out the funny, the poignant, the bits that could make us see how silly we’ve all been these 60 years. But no, no one told Chetan he should keep it light and smart.
One of the first volleys he aimed at Hanif was, “We just want people in Pakistan to know we’re hurt by the Mumbai attacks. That hurt us.” What??? Hanif looked suitably amused, if not irritated, by his companion’s earnestness. His us-versus-them comment was exactly the sort of ill-considered stupidity that scores of chest-thumping folks say all the time. He referred to the Mumbai attacks as though it was a declaration of war by the state of Pakistan. You half expected Hanif to pick up his mobile and telephone “the Pakistani people” to let them know. Bhagat then followed up his first pearl of wisdom with another one: “I just wish that idiot Qasab would be sentenced fast so we could all get back to our lives.”
What’s wrong with this guy? Why does he speak like he’s been caught thinking aloud? In his defence, Bhagat was occasionally funny, especially when he made fun of himself and the troubles he got into recently with the team of the 3 Idiots film. But he was overwhelmingly silly. His sappy, overwrought commentary was almost jingoistic, often condescending. It was the sort of average-Indian sentiment that you don’t expect from a writer, even one of Bhagat’s calibre. Hanif, on the other hand, was generous, making appreciative references to the Indian judicial system, even saying that a politician like Lalu Prasad Yadav would be a boon in Pakistan. It was how Bhagat ought to have behaved—generously. The sad fact was that Bhagat seemed genuinely glad to have become the voice of India, relating his country’s pain to the “Pakistani people”; that Big Brother tone of his came quite naturally. You could almost hear a voice in his head: “Phew, I’m glad I don’t live over there”.
And please, let’s stop calling Bhagat a representative of the youth. That demographic cannot be entirely summed up by the tiny management-school-type he represents.
Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time Bhagat has botched up a speaking assignment. In her blog Akhond of Swat, author Nilanjana S. Roy describes another disastrous literary session Bhagat was part of at the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival: “The Hanif Kureishi-Amitava Kumar session was a classic example of how matching the right moderator to the right writer can pay off massive dividends. The JLF had a little trouble with this, with Chetan Bhagat asking Anjum Hassan daft, condescending questions about how it felt to move from “the dressing table to the writing table”. It was clearly the Teen Deviyan and One Idiot panel.”
‘Save the children’. Rather unexpectedly, that phrase has become pertinent for Mumbai as the tally of student suicides here keeps increasing. At the time of writing this piece, there were newspaper reports of 14 children, who’d taken their own lives during the first three weeks of January. But as family members and the larger community try to figure out what’s happening and why, schools and already overworked teachers have become easy targets for blame. On 21 January, an FIR was registered against the principal and clerk of Swami Vivekanand School in Trombay, a northeastern suburb in the city, for abetting the suicide of 13-year-old Khalid Abdulla Shaikh.
According to the police, Khalid killed himself after being punished with a week’s suspension for getting into a bloody fight with a classmate. Khalid’s uncle, who lodged the complaint, believes his nephew would not have hung himself had he not been suspended. In response to the family’s claim, several dial-a-quote psychiatrists in the city have said that suspension is too strict a form of punishment. But, then, what is left?
Anyone who’s ever attempted to talk sense to rowdy young boys knows it takes a pretty big bogeyman to scare them into listening. Suspension may be a strict form of punishment, but isn’t a threat of some form of retribution an essential part of administering discipline? Over the years, our concerns have whittled down the arsenal that schools have to combat bad behaviour. Corporal punishment is rightly not an option any longer but if we take away non-violent actions like suspension, then what remains?
For families, the search for answers shouldn’t begin with blaming someone else. Schools already have a lot on their hands. If anyone other than students understands the trauma of our overcrowded education system, it’s teachers and administrators. And we are being too optimistic to assume that in the midst of everything else, the latter could possibly pick up the signs of hopelessness in our children. They neither can nor are paying that much attention to their jobs. In several parts of the country, especially in the public school system, it is not unusual for a schoolteacher to do everything from serve the midday meal to raise funds to finance a school bus. Then there are the sheer numbers. Even in Mumbai’s most elite schools, a teacher often deals with up to 54 students in a class.
It’s possible that eight-grader Khalid may not have taken such a drastic step if he’d not been punished, but it cannot have been the fundamental cause of his action. The only place where anyone stood the slightest chance of identifying the cause of his stress was at home. The home is the pivot that holds together a child’s personality. Heck, it’s the only place where he or she is not in competition with 40 others for attention. That’s where Khalid’s family should be looking for answers. That’s where we should all look.
I first heard of Dr Farokh Erach Udwadia in 2004. The medical correspondent of The Indian Express was told stories about the consultant physician and head of the Intensive Care Unit at Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital. Like canonisation miracles, his patients spoke of astounding diagnoses of ailments that had baffled others. He was an unusual medicine, someone who also had other interests, like history, classical music, art and literature.
An Emeritus Professor of Medicine at two colleges, and a 1987 Padma Bhushan recipient, his reputation was that of a detective-healer considered so impossibly good his closest comparisons are to fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes, and the Vicadin-propelled Dr Gregory House (of House MD on AXN). There was, as a doctor might say, enough empirical evidence to state that Dr Udwadia was the best general physician in the country. But Dr Udwadia had an unfeigned distaste for the media, and so my colleague had no hope of an interview with the man.
Five years later, I met the 78-year-old. It had taken two months to get an appointment, and I had the requisite complicated ailment. As I stood outside his consulting room awaiting my turn, the tit-bits kept coming: “Do you know that six out of ten patients at Breach Candy are Udwadia’s?”. “If you’re Udwadia’s patient, then you’ll be looked after well.” One doctor even said, “We think the man walks on air.”
In reality, Dr Udwadia is a good doctor in the way that family doctors were once good. He is obviously very experienced, but what really sets him apart is his mastery of a craft few men of medicine practice today: bedside diagnosis. Dr Udwadia’s takes the time to note detailed patient histories, and divines patients’ problems by listening to them tell their own stories. He asked me questions, and even more shockingly, he listened. He checked my pulse, asked me about my diet, my job, family, my travel pattern.
I’d forgotten the last time a doctor looked like he wasn’t in a hurry. And here was this man, legendary by all accounts, calmly telling me about the benefits of walking for 30 minutes every day versus sweating in a gym. Most doctors today don’t want to know their patients, and we forget to tell the details that could have helped us.
Dr Udwadia himself spoke about ‘bedside diagnosis’ last year in his latest book, The Forgotten Art of Healing and Other Essays. Medicine, he wrote, “is learnt and taught at the bedside by listening and talking to patients, by touching and examining them…” I must clarify that Dr Udwadia also asks for innumerable tests, though he didn’t of me, but it seems like the responsible thing to do for a man who’s almost 80. And even then, here is a doctor like few you’ll ever meet.
It’s not often that one gets culture-shocked. I’d consider it a luxury in this information-overloaded world of ours. We know, for example, that little Rajasthani girls don’t randomly dance in the Jaisalmer desert, and that the fish-lipped, enormously endowed Turkish bellydancer is clearly botox enhanced, but let pass such inaccuracies to enjoy a lie called ‘exotic’.
If someone had said three months ago, when I was leaving for an international dance fellowship in exotic Turkey, that Bollywood would be the biggest surprise of my trip, I’d have laughed. Now, having spent three months there in the company of people from 13 different nationalities, I hope you’ll believe me when I say, Bollywood as a force, is as shocking as it is inspiring. If you just let go.
“What does a laddoo taste like?” Rahayu, my Indonesian roommate casually asked me one afternoon. Indonesia, it seems, isn’t just fed on Bollywood films, even their local film industry is dominated by an Indian family aptly surnamed ‘Punjabi’. Rahayu loves Karan Johar films. A Muslim from Jakarta, she can sing the first few lines of the bhajan Om Jai Jagdish and lusts after the orange-coloured balls actors offer each other in the films. Her pal, 20-year-old Maulvi is a big fan of Hawa Hawaii from Mr India. Thanks to him I was once forced to the song in my nightie at 1am one night.
Lucas, an Argentinean is a Latin American ballroom dancing champion. So everytime he decided to impress me with his rendition of ‘Om Shanti Om’, I mistook it for a samba number. Vladimir, a Georgian dancer in our troupe, didn’t speak a word of English, or Turkish, communicating instead with an extraordinary smile and by ruffling people’s hair. The first time I met him, he sang the Mithun numbers Jimmy Jimmy and Duniya Hai Dilwalo Ki. It is difficult to explain the shock of meeting a foreign-language-speaking bonafide foreigner break into a song you heard last in 1989 on Chhaya Geet. Yes, it makes sense because erstwhile USSR was known to be a big fan of Mithun, back in the Cold War years when Indians named their kids Natasha and Tanya. But there’s still an element of surprise that no amount of second-hand knowledge can prepare you for.
The age-old Jain practice of Santhara has been held illegal by a court, raising old questions anew. Does the state own every life under it, or does our right to life also include the right to stop living?